Old Scotty finds out 500cc GP riders are definitely a breed apart
After two laps of Valencia behind Randy Mamola on a factory Yamaha, I now realise with absolute clarity that not I, nor any other road rider, could have any conception of what it is like to race a 500 GP two-stroke. You can spend a lifetime watching racing, studying it, analysing slow-mo video clips, etc etc. Believe me, you still have no idea.
Epiphany came at Valencia, a track that crams 12 corners into an area not much bigger than a soccer pitch. You turn a lot at Valencia. But you still easily reach 146 mph on the front straight. Only thing, the second time you come down it, you stop instead. I still feel the relief. It's fun, but it's also torture. Few find themselves eloquent as they get off. My own vocabulary shrank to just three words. "I'm f*ing shattered."
Some things are given even before you hoist your feet up on the back of the Marlboro Yamaha Racing Team's unique two-seater 500 - last year's YZR, fitted up with a rear subframe, a seat and a grab handle.
You know that this bike will accelerate very fast. The limit is not horsepower but avoiding flipping over backwards. With a hefty passenger perched up where the seat hump used to be, the YZR can loop at any speed. Randy has to be a tadge cautious with twist grip. It is not the acceleration that amazes.
You also know from Dorna's on-bike footage that the bike will achieve extraordinary lean angles. Again, no surprise here. Though it's exciting enough to hear the ssshrickk of Randy's knee-slider, and to eye the kerb a few inches from your shoulder.
You know the brakes will be fierce - even though they're iron not carbon, not least from Randy's warning. He promises the first application will be gentle, so get used to it - next time is for real. "The braking is the one thing everybody talks about," he warns.
Everybody is slightly missing the point. You can feel better brakes every time your Boeing lands - carbons for all.
The amazing thing is the tyres - or, to be precise, the force generated by the tyres. Especially the front tyre - a pre-warmed Michelin slick. You cannot conceive the grip that footprint can achieve - and the sheer force it puts on the motorcycle, the rider, and (oh yes) the hapless passenger.
A force that not only puts the braking power beyond all realms of expectation, but also the cornering bite - from your perch over his shoulders you can almost feel the muscle Randy has to use to haul the bike down to the apex.
A force so strong that cornering and braking can be done together. It stops hard and corners hard both at the same time, Randy easing the transition with his right hand as he cuts in towards the paint of yet another hairpin, scarred by sliders and the occasional tangential scrape from a practice crash, and painted in black stripes all the way out.
A force so great that your full strength is devoted purely to hanging on for dear life. There's no purchase from the footrests tucked under your bum, just the carbon-fibre grab rail at the back of the tank. Which you're using so damned hard that surely one day it must break.
Randy rides with a high margin of safety, but also within tight margins of accuracy. The computer speed trace of our flying lap was an exact match of Checa's earlier that day - just consistently 30-odd km/h slower. I was never scared. I've seen Randy fall off often enough, but have always known he's one of the supreme artists of a 500. Certainly good enough to give his passengers glimpses of the limits, taking the back tyre to that pre-slide seesaw squirm; braking hard enough so you can feel the back wheel still flying even as you're leaning in.
I tried to be a good passenger - keep looking forward, head on the inside of whichever way you're leaning. I even tried to wave a fist as we passed the little group of admirers on pit wall. This all proved rather hard, but Randy was kind enough to say that, for my size, I'd been pretty good. By which I assume he meant he'd enjoyed timing his end braking so perfectly that he'd been able to float me an inch off the seat and the pegs, all the way to a mono-wheel stop on the line.
In these circumstances, there's barely consciousness left to register that crisp motor, smooth but tingly-sharp, smooth and lively at small throttle openings, viciously strong at just a crack more - coughing once or twice, to remind you that it's a full-race motor in a full-race motorcycle.
Can't remember the gear-shifts at all. It was the line that fascinated - how this bike could turn and haul at these speeds ... how that clearly unreachable hill-brow apex suddenly becomes possible, with an extra degree of lean, a scrub of (hang on) front, and a tweak of throttle.
Our lap time was 1:56.6 - 22 seconds off the record. To put it in perspective, a 500 one-up, going for it, will do that same lap time ... in the wet. This fact alone puts a measurement on what it must be like to race one of these things for 45 minutes, in among a bunch of like-minded hooligans. Just how big the forces are, that these riders play with like toys.
My understanding has been changed. From now on, when riders talk about chatter, I will understand that it is not just an uneasy pattering, but an evil road-drill vibration that tries to rip the chassis in two.
When I see on-bike footage, I will have some passing idea of what the rider is feeling.
When I see a high-side, I now understand why riders are flung rag-doll through the air. Those huge forces, operating in the wrong direction.
When I see the riders straight after a race, eyes mad with adrenaline, physically exhausted, I will understand why they too must be shattered. And admire all the more at the gift of riding talent to tame these forces. And then still go racing.
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